Of all the essential skills of leadership, listening is the most important. Learning how to listen to yourself as well as to others, to really listen, is the key to understanding everything, yet is rarely taught.
After many years of working as a coach and mentor I’m still honing my skills every day, but hopefully my journey of learning how to listen will inspire you.
Listen without thinking
In childhood we’re told to listen to teachers, to our parents, to take instruction. We learn that we must take turns when having a conversation and not interrupt others. But in these situations, listening is reduced to being a pause while we wait for our turn to say or do something, rather than an opportunity for enlightenment. The time when we’re supposed to be listening is actually when we’re thinking about what we want to say or do next, rather than properly focusing on what the other person is saying.
Fast forward into adulthood and I recall my experiences in sales. I was taught a script to use with customers, a series of questions I had to ask in order to close the sale. I dutifully learnt my lines but during conversations with customers I was so fixed on my questions that I completely forgot to listen properly to their answers.
If our mind is crowded with our own thoughts, we are unable to listen. Learning how to listen fully and deeply requires an emptiness in the listener: as a listener we must vacate our position, clear our mind and find stillness.
Another negative consequence of thinking while listening is our tendency to judge others. Almost unwittingly, we become deeply caught up in our own thoughts and opinions rather than listening to what is being said. This switches our focus from the person speaking, and rather than being a receptacle for receiving the words of others, we become defensive or even attacking.
Have you ever noticed that SILENT is an anagram of LISTEN? Perhaps one of the reasons we find learning how to listen difficult is that it requires us to embrace silence in our conversations. How many of us can resist the urge to say something when someone stops speaking? Conversational pauses are considered excruciating rather than an opportunity for quiet contemplation. We even find listening to ourselves difficult, rarely taking the time to sit silently and reflect without distraction.
The truth is only ever found in silence so we must get comfortable with it, giving ourselves and others silent space and time. It is at this point that the respondent transitions from a more intellectual or thinking mode into an insightful, feeling space. This is where true insight is found.
Listen to learn
Ultimately, everyone is their own best teacher and we can each find all the answers we need within ourselves. Learning how to listen to our own inner voice, and to be a good listener for others, is the key to unlocking this knowledge.
To help us remember the vital components of listening, we’ve developed this neat acrostic:
Lean in; be curious
Insight; let them find it
Silence; embrace it, don’t interrupt
Teach; we’re all our own best teacher
Essence; listen beyond their words to find their essence
Now; listen to what they’re saying now. No need to propel them forwards